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Reflections on Service to Society and Humanity

Corporal Victor Shugart (270) while on duty. Photo courtesy of Victor Shugart.

In Mr. Hung’s Conflicts class, seniors discuss global issues, current events, and create solutions to crises afflicting different societies throughout the world. Additionally, students read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a book written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, which discusses abuse targeted towards women in various cultures and societies and how nations and organizations can solve these problems and injustices.

On many days, speakers are invited to talk about issues they are researching, have experienced, or are planning to write about. In March, Victor Shugart (270) visited the Conflicts class and talked about his time as a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps. Victor served for four years in Camp Pendleton, California, where he was stationed, and was eventually deployed on the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit to the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf. He traveled to the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Djibouti, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Israel, aboard the U.S.S. Boxer. He is currently a full-time student studying Mechanical Engineering at Drexel University.

Victor sat down with Centralizer for an exclusive interview to further talk about his experience while he served abroad and what he learned:

Q: What at Central influenced you to join the military?

Well, I would have to say it wasn’t a whole lot to do with Central, because Central’s not exactly a militant school. I didn’t go to Valley Forge Military Academy or some other institution. Central has always been very liberal and very pacifist, and my influence to join the military came from my family history, my extracurricular activities, and what I appreciated doing in my off time. Central probably served as an anchor to try and sway me away from joining the military, but in the end, I don’t think it was enough.

Q: What sort of extracurriculars did you do?

When I was a little kid, I used to watch the History Channel a lot. I used to play with green army men—my mom always said it was just foretold from the beginning. I got really into paintball, and I used to practice playing with swords. You can look at the trajectory of my life and you can see it building up to where I was going. If you looked at me and my friends building little Lego toy weapons, I built up a kind of image of what I liked to do in my own time, outside of school. I don’t think [joining the military] really had much to do with Central.

Q: What has the military taught you?

The most important thing I learned from the military was perspective—there’s a lot of struggle in being in the military, day to day. Every day, you get up at 5:30 or 6 A.M. no matter what, put on a uniform, and go to work. You have to be professional. You’re going to feel a lot of pain. You’re going to sweat. You’re going to work long hours, and you’re really not going to be compensated that much [in the] long-term. Most people that I know in the military, from private all the way to sergeant, are making a poverty wage. You learn to suffer through the things that are put in front of you, and to have bearing—to be able to just keep looking forward. Even though bad things may happen, you’re still going to live, you’re still going to survive, and it’s going to repeat itself tomorrow anyways, so you might as well just get through it.

Q: What has your service taught you?

I got a lot from my service, insofar as that I feel like I can contribute to the national defense. I never served in combat, but that didn’t degrade my feeling of contribution to the national defense. I was out there. I was training. I was ready to do whatever I was told to do. My service taught me that it’s good to contribute to the national defense, but it was very hard to feel significant impact on a scale so large. There’s literally 1.4 million people serving on active duty, and you’re just one person. It’s very hard to see what you do everyday, in real time, affecting people or subjects that you care about. My service taught me that if I want that kind of satisfaction, I think I need to take that kind of passion and discipline and motivation that I had in the military and come back to the civilian world and work in my neighborhood with my family and friends. That way I can see the impact that I have on my culture and my community.

Q: Do you think that that effect from your service is unique to you, or might some of your other comrades feel the same way?

I think that it was a genuine feeling of being in the military. Some people aren’t always proud of their service. Some people end up regretting the fact that they’re away from their families or they’re suffering a lot of physical hardships, but a lot of people take pride and realize what they’re doing is contributing to something the nation cares about. We elected a government and the government decided to raise the military, so we are acting on the will of the people. We’re volunteering ourselves for four years, eight years at a time, so there’s a good feeling at heart that I think a lot of people share—that we’re contributing the global community and our national defense.

Q: What left the greatest impact on you while serving?

When I was overseas, we went to places like the Philippines and Djibouti [in] Africa. I really learned perspective when I was on my deployment going to these third-world countries, seeing the abject poverty some people live in. These problems of sexual slavery and the kind of abuse that some people are subject to every day in the Third World [aren’t] called to our attention everyday in America. We don’t see it; it’s not part of our lives. I’ve seen starving children in East Africa just begging for food as we [drove] by, and [we threw] our “meals-ready-to-eat” out of the truck, trying to feed them, and you hope that some kid gets that food. You hope that it doesn’t get destroyed because [there are] thirty people there, trying to go over one bag of food.

In the Philippines, everywhere we went, they were [in] just tin shacks and a very impoverished society, [and] somehow, the presence of the military has actually kept those towns afloat from the influx of money from people in the military. But it brings a lot of dark sides to it, like sexual slavery and prostitution, that have led to chronic mistreatment of women—young women and girls,  especially in places like the Philippines, Bahrain, and a couple other Middle Eastern countries that I went to, and [I] saw the same problems.

Q: Did you ever feel compelled to say, “We should be doing something else other than the primary directive?”

When we were in those towns, we didn’t really have a mission—we were there to take a break from our mission, which was to get ready to do whatever the government told us to. It felt like we were just kind of witnesses sometimes, because we have all the might of the U.S. military, but we’re just a small group of people there and we don’t have any political jurisdiction to go in there and change anything that’s going on. The best thing we could do was not engage in it—don’t participate, don’t give them your money—because that’s what they want. They want your American dollars to go to the brothel or just fund whatever they’re doing there to raise themselves out of poverty, even if it’s in a really criminal or abusive way. We didn’t really have a directive while we were there, but I took it upon myself to realize what power my money has in a small place like that.

Q: What advice do you have for Central students who are thinking about joining or enlisting in the military—across all branches?

Don’t delude yourself about what you expect will happen. If you think everybody in the military is going to be the kind of person that you are, that’s wrong. The military is a reflection of society. A lot of people like to think it’s just poor people who are going there because they don’t have a job, or kids trying to go to college, but there is every kind of walk of life in the military. You’re going to meet wealthy people, poor people, black people, Asians, Hispanic, and white people. It’s very diverse; it’s a huge organization. Whatever your preconceived notions of what it’s going to be are going to be shattered in the first month you’re there.

It’s hard to adapt to the culture in the beginning because it’s very regimented, especially if you come from Central, which is a very open and collegiate-style discussion with the authority figure who’s your teacher. How [the authority figures] treat you, and how you get to treat them, changes drastically. They are no longer someone who just teaches you. They dictate whether you live or die. They tell you to do things, and they’ll come into your room at two in the morning, tell you to wake up, and say, “We need to go do this thing.” And you can’t tell them no; you are legally bound to obey people. And that’s a concept that isn’t really thought about….I went in thinking that everybody who was in the military is in there to be the top notch professional—and there are those people—but then there’s also your everyday people, and sometimes, they end up in leadership positions, too. It can be very challenging to deal with that world.

I had a very naive outlook on what the military would be. I held it to a very high idealistic standard and that clashed with reality. I met people that I will remember for the rest of my life and that I will admire until the day I die, and there are some people that I’d never like to see again, and I thought that they were a discredit to the institution. Probably some of them were a danger to other people. It’s hard to instill that kind of notion of, “These are just people, who are serving the country, and not superheroes or villains, in that same regard.” They’re compatriots. They’re fellow citizens, out there serving with you. They’re not robots. They’re not perfect fits for the military all the time. You have to understand that you need social skills. You need to mesh your expectations with your experiences that you already have, going into the military.

Q: Why is the book, Half the Sky valuable to you?

I can think back to when I read that book in Mr. Hung’s class in 2010. It struck a chord with me because I was having some trouble at home, and I think I was a rebellious teenager. Puberty kind of kicked me right in the rear, and I had a lot of negative outlooks on women, but Mr. Hung was an authority figure that I’d always respected because of his candor and humor and the fact that he engaged the class. He showed us this book and it opened my eyes because I trusted him inherently as a teacher.

I read this book and it just really opened my eyes to the fact that women are people and that sometimes that’s not even brought up in society. There’s this objectification, subliminally, woven into our everyday life as men in American society today, and it just came out of who I was as I was growing up. But this book opened my eyes to say, “Hey, no, that girl over there isn’t just a girl. She’s a human being, and she suffers, and she feels, and she has the same experiences as you do. She’s just biologically a little different, but you’re about ninety-nine percent the same on a genetic level. So, why would you ever treat that person differently?” And I realized that I had been treating women [and] girls differently my whole life, and I was just seventeen years old. And it still shook me—I’d been so jaded in my outlook about how to treat other human beings, and this book really let me know that there are women out there who are suffering, abjectly. There are women out there, who if we just treated them better, huge parts of society would just improve.

In the book, I remember talking about how half the workforce has been neutered—they won’t let women work in some societies. And that’s fifty percent of the population that could be used as a talent pool! There [are] so many reasons to liberate women socially, economically, and individually [and] to include them in our society and change our perception of how it is we go about interacting with other human beings. The book has resonated with me a lot—I showed it to a few friends of mine when we were on deployment, and I feel like I should’ve been more persuasive with them to read it because they weren’t all too into it. Nicholas Kristof wrote a very good book and it touched me very significantly.

Q: Do you think that what you took from the book and what you took from your service are aligned? Do they conflict?

I think there are some definite parallels and [that] there are some contrasts. Service to society, insofar as my service to the military, also parallels my service to my humanity, and that’s bringing my attention to realize that I’ve been unable to reconcile these unconscious biases that I have and that I want to do good for the nation as a whole [in addition to being] brave and strong. That, in my mind, is just as valuable as treating women the way they deserve to be treated. They have just as much tangible benefit, and some people will argue otherwise, but it’s been my experience that our society as a whole will benefit from our collective national defense and our collective inclusion of women in a more welcoming format in our society today.

Q: Did you use what Mr. Hung taught you in the military?

I got a lot from Mr. Hung in my service, especially when, on the first day of class, he talks about bias. In World History class with him, the first subject he taught us was, “You all have bias. I have bias. And if we want to seek truth, we need to set those biases aside and objectively look at the facts and the surroundings we have.” I use that all the time; I catch myself thinking something, and then I’m like, “Wait a minute, why do I think that?” That’s just a bias, that’s just a conclusion I came to with no logical reason, and I’ll step back and I’ll realize, “What are the options in front of me?” or, “What does the evidence say?” as opposed to just my innate chemical reaction to think the solutions are. I used that all the time in the military. There were a lot of lessons that I got from Mr. Hung.

Q: What is your favorite memory from Central?

I really enjoyed Mr. Giacomini’s class for Physics. I think it was his first or second year. That really got me going because I used to be a terrible math student, especially here at Central—I was just mediocre and subpar. His class, [which] involved science with math, really turned it around for me my last year. I had only had Algebra II in junior year, and so I ended up taking Material Science the following year, and I had already signed up for Spanish 4, so I didn’t really end up doing higher math. But Mr. G really kind of turned around my outlook on math and science. Today, I am doing engineering at Drexel, so I have a lot to credit to his approach to science and math that really pointed me in the direction I wanted to go.

Q: What plans do you have for the future?

Hopefully graduate school, or if I don’t have a mind for it, become an entrepreneur and open my own business, maybe [something in] machining or manufacturing or fabrication.
We thank Victor for his service to our country and wish him luck in his future endeavors.

Zoe Braccia (275), Managing Editor
Natan Yakov (275), Editor-in-Chief

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